TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill says the next move in the effort to build an Ybor City ballpark belongs to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Merrill sent a memo to county commissioners last week outlining the framework of a possible deal.
Now he says the county needs to know what the Rays think. Do they approve or disapprove? Do they have a counter-proposal? What do they want to change and what do they want to keep?
"We're kind of at that point," Merrill said. "Our mission was to build a framework for a deal and this is the best we could come up with. We really need to hear from the Rays."
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The Rays aren't showing their cards, declining to comment on Merrill's memo. The administrator said no team official has contacted him.
When 2019 dawns, the Rays agreement with St. Petersburg that allowed the team to spend three years looking for Hillsborough stadium sites expires. Merrill says he thinks the first step before that agreement ends is for the Rays to agree to the terms outlined in his memo.
"The first step is for the Rays to tell us that they're willing to work within the framework outlined ... as a basis for negotiating," Merrill said.
In advance of those talks, Hillsborough leaders plan to create a negotiating team that will include: County Commissioner Ken Hagan, the county’s designated point person on a new stadium deal; Tampa Sports Authority President and CEO Eric Hart; a representative from the city of Tampa; and New York attorney Irwin Raij, who specializes in stadium deals.
Raij had been working with the county as a go-between between the county and Rays. Now Merrill said Raij will report to the Sports Authority, which has been the conduit for past Tampa stadium deals including Amalie Arena, Raymond James Stadium and the Yankees’ spring training facility.
"They've all been done through TSA," Merrill said.
The new arrangement with Raij means that the city will help pay his legal bills, Merrill said. Most of the authority's funding comes from the county and city.
Hart could not be reached for comment. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn presumably would be his city’s representative on the negotiating team.
Merrill's memo listed April 30 as the tentative date to finish hammering out a stadium deal. Buckhorn leaves office the next day, May 1.
"We want to get something done before this mayor leaves office," Merrill said.
In a statement Tuesday, Buckhorn spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said the mayor will be actively involved. So will the Tampa City Council.
"Any land use changes, zoning decisions, or the establishment of special assessment districts will be by the City of Tampa and we look forward to those discussions," Bauman texted.
Hagan didn't return a call seeking comment. But last week he told the Tampa Bay Times that the Rays would have to come up with at least half of the cost of a stadium or about $450 million. Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg has indicated the team may be willing to spend about $200 million.
For negotiations to begin, perhaps as soon as early next year, the Rays would likely have to negotiate with St. Petersburg to extend the expiring agreement that allowed the team to seek a Hillsborough stadium site. That extension would have to be approved by the St. Petersburg City Council in 2019 and could cost the team a substantial amount of money.
Meanwhile, the Hillsborough County Commission is scheduled to discuss the status of the Rays deal at Wednesday's meeting. Commissioner Pat Kemp said details are long overdue. Before Merrill released his memo last week, she had asked for the issue to be discussed at the upcoming meeting.
"I just thought it was the elephant in the room," she said. "I was very concerned that we have some type of discussion. It's complex. It's confusing."
Hagan’s role in the process has been criticized by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. The mayor, whose city has been home to the Rays since their inaugural 1998 season, has called for Hagan to step down from his role in the stadium deal.
In a series of tweets and statements last month, the Sunshine City's mayor accused Hagan of “potential unethical or criminal behavior” in his dealings with Blue Pearl CEO Darryl Shaw, who has assembled much of the land for the proposed ballpark north of Adamo Drive near the Ybor Channel.
Hagan has denied any wrongdoing and called for a defamation law suit to be researched against 10News WTSP for the report last week that first raised questions about Hagan and Shaw's relationship.
Shaw has said he and Hagan did not collude or conspire in regards to the purchasing of the Ybor properties. Shaw had already bought the vast majority of the parcels, he told the Times, before meeting Hagan or sitting down with the Rays.
Kemp said she isn't comfortable with Hagan's role, but said that at Wednesday’s commission meeting she will not ask him to step aside from the stadium effort.
"I would want some more information,” she said. “I think it's kind of premature."